News reached my ears today that Australian game studio Fuzzyeyes may be closing its doors, and that their currently in-development game project, Edge of Twilight, has been cancelled after over 2 years of active development.
Honestly, my reaction was less than stellar. I wanted to break something over my knee.
Here we see yet another fantastic concept tossed to the wayside, lost in the graveyard of vaporware we call the video game industry. Beyond that, we have the potential closure of an up and coming studio with nothing but passion and creativity to boast about.
Needless to say, I’m upset about the whole ordeal. But why? To the few of you that read this, you may be wondering who Fuzzyeyes even was, never mind why you should care about Edge of Twilight. This is precisely the issue. Not enough people care, because not enough people know.
If you haven’t given the game a look, check out this trailer to see what I had been so excited about:
It’s hard to believe that something so beautiful, so polished, could just get the axe like that. Clearly this had been a game with some serious thought put into the story and the world, not to mention the attention to detail present in every shot of that trailer. The precise reasons for this closure are unclear at this moment, and most of it has been played off as rumor, but I’m inclined to believe these rumors are true.
What matters now is not why or how they got to this point, but rather, the fact that this could happen at all. There is a serious problem in the game industry, and in many media industries in general today, with artistry and craft being looked at as simply another resource to make someone money. We have completely lost track of the value of artists in contemporary culture, and we frame our media as simply an outlet for entertainment, nothing more. This completely devalues the individuals who pour their passion and time into every idea, hoping to bring their unique visions to life. It’s a small wonder that we don’t hear about companies like Fuzzyeyes.
They aren’t alone, either. Far from it, studios get hung out to dry all the time, often on the tails of a single project. Look at what happened to Grin with Bionic Commando. By the time the game released, Grin had become a multi-national entity with multiple studios all across Europe. Logic dictates that, given the scope and breadth of Grin’s portfolio, even if Bionic Commando tanked, they would have been ok. It turns out that was not the case. With the game pushing a measly 27,000 units in sales out the gate (Fahey, 2009), Bionic Commando was a massive failure. The impact startled even me, as it resulted in Grin shutting down all operations a month later.
Disregarding game review scores and generally negative press coverage at launch, my experience in playing Bionic Commando had been largely positive. It was a game that knew exactly what it wanted to be, and it never tried to be anything else. It was an expertly crafted and polished send-up to classic gaming challenge and cheesy past-decade sci-fi action films. I loved every minute of it, and as I showed it off to my friends and peers, many people agreed.
Look awesome? It was.
Despite all of that, the game had almost zero cultural or market impact. Given the aforementioned negative press coverage, the game was pretty much assured to never even gain cult status, and is likely doomed to be lost in the annals of gaming history. This is tragic, as it has resulted in a group of talented individuals losing out on not only their due credit, but their very livelihood as well.
It doesn’t end there either. The problem is systemic. The past few years have seen the closing of Pandemic, Midway Newcastle, Grin, and Ensemble Studios just to name a few. All of these companies had solid portfolios, as well as new and exciting projects in development. Sadly, games like Necessary Force, developed by Midway Newcastle, will never reach the market.
Midway Newcastle’s Necessary Force
The video game industry has become largely locked into a system that favors a lucky few. A lot of money is getting moved around, but it’s only really controlled by a small group of major publishers, most of which are only interested in sales figures for the sake of profit. These are resources that could be used to empower studios to do truly daring, progressive things, but it is often wasted by executives who would rather let the marketing department dictate the direction of their portfolio.
There is a reason why so many outsiders still debate the value of gaming as a meaningful art form. As an industry, and as a culture, we do not do a very good job at supporting the kind of intellectual and creative diversity that has allowed more traditional artistic mediums to thrive. The truth we have to face is that, despite all our claims to the contrary, today’s major video game successes are largely formulaic time-wasters. Our business model doesn’t promote taking risks, and that has only hurt us as artists. Those that are daring enough to take those risks are often pushed to the sidelines, left behind in the financial rat-race.
It’s an easy problem to identify, when you really think about it. The very pioneer spirit that brought gaming its initial successes has attracted a lot of non-creative people to try and get a piece of that pie. Most business people only see numbers and dollar signs when they look at the medium, and completely miss the point of why people picked it up in the first place. They see studios as a resource to reach the ultimate goal of profit, often while trying to minimize “creative risk.” This has resulted in an astonishing lack of diversity in the popular gaming sphere. It’s no wonder people still question our artistic validity.
So what? Business is business, they say. What’s so wrong with this system in the first place? To understand that, one really has to think about the roots of capitalism itself. Historically, the idea of capitalism was meant to create a system where resources would not require outside management, where quality ideas and products would naturally rise to the top and talented people would get the resources they deserved for their work. In a free-market system, the ideal world would find the hardest working, most innovative, and most passionate people rise to the top while derivative ideas are less common. The entire concept of industrial competition is meant to promote this. Finances, profit, and business were never meant to be the end goal, but simply the tools to reach the more honorable goals of social progress.
This is where the value of art comes in. If we honestly believe that our craft is meant only for entertainment, then we are in fact giving little back to society. Art is powerful because it is so much more than entertainment, it is the emotional and intellectual stimulation that helps people think and grow. It often leads to the kind of knowledge that cannot be gained through research or analysis. The value art provides to a culture is in its development of wisdom. Otherwise, the entire concept is just hollow.
Here lies the biggest problem. Non-creative people should never be in charge of creative industries. They completely miss the point of the medium, and it quickly devolves into a system of abuse in which the art form becomes little more than mindless entertainment. It may seem like that isn’t an issue in the short run. If people are enjoying a game, what can be so wrong with it? In the long-term, however, it becomes extremely unfulfilling for both developers and consumers. Studios are not able to properly pursue their more thought-provoking ideas, and we lose out on those experiences.
When you get the right people in charge, the business model can be used as a force for good. There are still a few examples of this going on in the video game industry, and I take these as proof that a win-win scenario is possible. Most recently of note, Gearbox’s Borderlands was a runaway hit. They got the kind of marketing and financial support they needed and deserved, and brand awareness was high before launch. Conceptually, Borderlands was certainly a creative risk, yet it got off to a running start, selling over 400,000 units on the Xbox 360 alone in its first month (Puleo, 2009). That’s good news to me, as I found the game to be both interesting and refreshingly different than anything I have recently played.
Borderlands’ innovative gameplay and unique style was a breath of fresh air.
Better still is the example of Bioshock. Few people will deny that Bioshock was a huge hit. At launch, it sold over 1.5 Million copies (Thorsen, 2007). That’s quite a payoff for what was certainly a risky idea. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to pitch that game. An underwater shooter based on the writings of Ayn Rand set in an art-deco sci-fi world must have sounded like a marketing nightmare. Still, someone convinced Take-Two to go for it, and I’m sure they are glad they did. People love Bioshock. The developer got to work on an exciting and new idea, consumers got a great game, and Take-Two walked away with a wad of cash. Everyone wins.
Bioshock changed the way a lot of people think about modern FPS gaming
It’s important to note that these are the exception, not the rule. We still live in a world where the majority of development money goes towards sequels and formulaic retreads of the same genre over and over again. This is taking valuable resources away from the people who need it, the people with a passion for new ideas. So while every once and a while we can celebrate the success of a 2k Boston or a Gearbox, it comes at the cost of dozens of other gaming studios getting lost in the shuffle.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but it won’t change on its own. Internally, developers need to really make a stand against the current business model. Too many companies are literally living game to game, and every title they make has the risk of shutting the whole thing down. Sure, people sometimes recover and move on. A few of the artists from Midway Newcastle went on to form Atomhawk, but I still find myself disappointed that they even had to take that step back to regroup.
Now, before I wrap this up, I want to touch on the indie scene for a moment. It is indeed true that a lot of progressive and interesting work is coming out of indie game development, and that’s certainly a good thing. Even so, that really isn’t enough. Some artists can create their vision with a smaller team and a tighter budget, but not all ideas work well on that scale. This industry needs to offer people the breathing room to find their own best-fit scenario. A game like Edge of Twilight, for example, could only really work as a triple-A title. Should we really be saving that kind of depth only for smaller companies?
Video game culture prides itself on being progressive and well-informed. We mock Fox news and other media outlets when they talk about video games from such a sheltered perspective, but we need to think about how knowledgeable we really are. As enthusiasts and consumers, we have a responsibility to know the market, and to think about more than just what genre of game we like to play. Our gaming radar cannot consist merely of browsing the front pages of Gamespot and IGN. If we really want to see more fresh and exciting media coming our way, we need to do the research and find out about games like Edge of Twilight long before they are at risk of cancellation. Publishers won’t support a game if they think people aren’t interested, so consumers really need to make their voices heard. Word of mouth is still the best marketing tool, and everyone can do their part to ensure that the demand is out there for truly progressive media. Right now, we just aren’t seeing that.
The reality is, we’ve got our priorities all mixed up. The business should be in service to the craft, not the other way around. What we are missing here is the human element. We forget that our games are made by real people with real passions and ideas. Studios aren’t just some resource to serve public desire and publisher profits. They’re groups of talented individuals, often risking everything to bring their unique vision to life. We should be celebrating their talent and empowering them to create the kind of art we cannot even imagine. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with another Call of Duty next to the likes of Bioshock, but there needs to be room for both. I for one do not believe that our current business practices will bring the video game industry the kind of respect and cultural importance we think we deserve. If we’re going to keep talking about art, we need to start supporting it.
EDIT December 2 - 11PM: A glimmer of hope for Edge of Twilight!
Fahey, M. (2009, June 15). Bionic Commando Fails To Grab Retail Success. Retrieved December 1, 2009, from Kotaku: http://kotaku.com/5291385/bionic-commando-fails-to-grab-retail-success
Puleo, N. (2009, November 13). Analyst Proven Wrong as Borderlands Sells Big In October. Retrieved December 1, 2009, from Co-Optimus: http://www.co-optimus.com/article/2967/Analyst_Proven_Wrong_as_Borderlands_Sells_Big_in_October.html
Thorsen, T. (2007, September 10). Bioshock Ships 1.5M, Sequels Being Discussed. Retrieved December 1, 2009, from Gamespot: http://www.gamespot.com/news/6178502.html
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